He was the gentlest of men, his friends and relatives said, a poet who spent what free time he had with his wife and three small daughters, enjoying the parks near their Orange County condominium and snapping dozens of pictures of his girls.
He had received threats, to be sure, but he was an American now in a free and mostly peaceful country; and he only occasionally took precautions, such as carefully checking his mail. What worried him were his trips back to his village on the Palestinian West Bank, where his 80-year-old father told of Israeli soldiers harassing the men in the cafes, making some stand on one leg for a long time.
So when Alex Odeh, west coast regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), approached the door of his second-floor office here Friday on a beautiful, smog-free morning, thoughts of violent death were probably far from his mind.
According to authorities here and his relatives, a tripwire attached to the door apparently set off the bomb that tore through the lower part of his body. The explosion was so great that it showered the palm-lined street below with concrete, torn curtains and glass and slightly injured seven people in adjoining offices or on the street.
Two hours later the bald, soft-spoken 41-year-old author and college instructor was dead. Emergency surgery had failed to save him. In the wake of his death has come a wave of indignation from Arab Americans across the country who are convinced that ignorance and insensitivity within the U.S. government and the American news media had helped inspire Odeh's killers, as yet unidentified.
In the view of both Odeh's closest friends and harshest critics, a key trigger to the attack was an interview he gave a local television station the day before the blast and the way the station edited the interview to match heightened public interest in the Palestinian terrorist hijacking of an Italian ocean liner and the murder of an elderly American on board.
In the few seconds of an interview broadcast Thursday night on KABC-TV, Odeh suggested that the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and its chairman, Yasser Arafat, had no role in the hijacking. "The media ought to give the PLO and Arafat recognition, inform the public about the PLO as a political organization and Arafat in particular as the chairman of the PLO, who is a man of peace."
In segments of the interview that were not broadcast, according to ADC Los Angeles chapter president David Habib, Odeh "condemned the hijacking of the ship, condemned terrorism around the world, . . . yet they decided to broadcast a little part that seemed to show Alex Odeh and the ADC are a pro-Arafat organization." A KABC spokeswoman declined to comment.
When a relative later expressed fear of reaction to the interview, Odeh reportedly said, "Why are you worried?"
"He was a very quiet, very gentle man," said Lisa Odeh, his sister-in-law. "We had some fear that something might happen to him in Israel, but we never thought this would happen in the United States."
Santa Ana police, joined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Los Angeles police antiterrorist division in the investigation, say that they have no suspects in the bombing, but the KABC interview clearly made an impression on some people. Leaders of the Jewish Defense League, asked for comment after the bombing, denied any involvement but lambasted Odeh for speaking well of the PLO, which they blame for the shipboard hijacking and murder.
"I have no tears for Mr. Odeh," said JDL leader Irv Rubin. "He got exactly what he deserves."
Habib said Odeh had devoted his life to trying to remove ignorance of the Middle East and bias against Arabs from American life. His reaction to some insensitive comment or act was, "Well, we've got a lot of work to do," Habib recalled. "He was so used to it . . . he just understood."
Much of this attitude is reflected in a book of his poetry, "Whispers in Exile," published in an Arabic-language paperback edition by The New Circle magazine two years ago. A second book of poetry is due out soon, adding to Odeh's prolific output of letters and essays.
Wafa Nasr, an ADC staffer, translated a portion of an Odeh poem: "Lies are like still ashes. When the wind of truth blows, The lies are dispersed like dust and disappear. At least we all owe thanks To the one who tries to speak, write or paint An honest thought to the world."
"Alex Odeh was a peaceful, nonviolent man who was a good citizen and who tried to do his best for the United States by peacefully debating the issues of the Middle East," said former senator James G. Abourezk (D-S.D.), who is the national chairman of the ADC. He accused President Reagan and American newscasters of "exacerbating the threatening atmosphere" toward Arabs and Arab Americans by unrestrained comment on the hijacking. He urged the White House to speak out against Odeh's murder. At midday today, the administration did speak out. A statement by White House spokesman Larry Speakes said, "The administration deeply deplores this tragic event and condemns in the strongest possible terms the criminal use of violence and terrorism to achieve political ends."
The statement added, "To think even for a moment that there exists a justification for such heinous acts does grave injustice to the principles of political freedom upon which this country was founded."
Barbara Shahin, ADC deputy executive director in Washington, particularly chastised American newspapers, including The Washington Post, for running short wire service accounts of Odeh's death while devoting pages to stories on the shipboard hijacking and murder. "This was an American killed on American soil by American terrorists," she said.
Odeh was born in the West Bank village of Jifna to a Roman Catholic family. His father, a retired grocer, still lives there. His mother died of cancer three years ago, and his sister-in-law said Odeh complained of the heavy Israeli red tape that obstructed his efforts to remove his mother from a hospital so she could spend her last days at home.
He attended Bir Zeit University and Al-Najah University on the West Bank, then studied economics at the University of Cairo. He moved to the United States in 1972 and attended California State University at Fullerton, where he got a master's degree in political science in 1978.
He worked for the Saudi Arabian Cultural Mission in Los Angeles for several years and became a U.S. citizen in 1977. He taught Arabic at Cal State Fullerton and at Coastline Community College, where he also taught Mideast history and politics and was recently elected to the Academic Senate. He was a member of the Orange County Human Relations Commission.
He met his wife, Norma, in Jifna. He returned there to marry her in 1975. They began to raise a family in Orange, a small community adjoining this Orange County seat.
Their three daughters are Helena, 7; Samia, 5, and Susan, 2. Odeh's brother, Sami, a local realtor, lived nearby with his family.
Odeh, Abourezk said, "believed in what he was doing, and he sure wasn't in it for the money." His low salary, he said, meant "he had absolutely no insurance and his wife has literally nothing to live on. We are trying to do what we can as an organization to help them."